It’s a cold, rainy Saturday night in Spanish Harlem in November 2017, but inside Camaradas El Barrio the scene is a fuego! The wine is flowing, the mofongo is tasting good and Fernando García’s sextet is percolating on the bandstand with a fiery abandon that is palpable to the crowd. As they launch into a wild, whirlwind descarga take on the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol classic “Caravan,” García fuels the clave with his left foot on the cowbell while traversing the kit with polyrhythmic aplomb as pianist Gabriel Chakarji lays down an entrancing montuno.
A consummate conductor from the behind kit, García nimbly shifts insinuating rhythms from song to song chachalokafún to bembé to cuembé to sicá to timba while never letting the groove slip. Slovenian-born saxophonist Jan Kus adds husky-toned tenor over the top as guitarist Gabriel Vicéns dazzles with single note flurries while conguero/barrilero Victor Pablo stokes the flames. It doesn’t get much hotter than this.
Like a master rhythmatist, García juggles all the intricate polyrhythms, odd meters and quick tempo shifts with assuredness and authority. The Puerto Rico native and New York City resident is fast emerging as a talent deserving of wider recognition for both his remarkable adeptness on the kit and his considerable skills as a composer-arranger. On Guasábara Puerto Rico, García organically blends folkloric bomba rhythms and jazz in a myriad of satisfying ways. Backed by his core group of Kus, Vicéns, Chakarji, Pablo and bassist Dan Martínez, the drummer and his simpatico crew of youngbloods push the envelope on García’s third album as a leader and debut for ZOHO Music.
Special guest Miguel Zenón, the acclaimed saxophonist-composer-bandleader and native of San Juan, elevates the proceedings on the dramatic and turbulent title track. “Miguel is one of my big heroes,” says García. “I’ve been following his music since 2006. His album Esta Plena is a perfect example of mixing the folkloric Puerto Rican music with modern jazz harmony and polyrhythms. So I’ve gotten a lot of influences from him.”
García is following in the footsteps of innovators like Zenón and other Puerto Rican-born musician-composers like David Sánchez, William Cepeda and Edsel Gómez. Growing up in Guaynabo, he absorbed the music of Hector Lavoe, Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, Willie Colón and the Fania All-Stars and was also hugely influenced by El Sonido Nuevo, the classic 1966 collaboration between Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri. Meeting master percussionist and folklorist Rafael Maya in Guaynabo exposed him to bomba, the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, in a profound way.
“Rafael’s studied a lot of the cultural history of Puerto Rico in the early 1900s,” García explains. “I met him in 2011 when I lived with my parents in Guaynabo and had a recording studio in their garage. Rafael contacted me about recording a bomba CD with his group, Desde Cero, and before I knew it he started bringing all these really famous bomba musicians into my parents’ garage. So I was hanging with these great people who have played those rhythms for their entire life. And it was then that I got hooked on bomba.”
Maya not only taught García the folkloric track Guaynabo Me Tambor, a calindá rhythm arranged for the ensemble by García on Guasábara Puerto Rico, he also contributed the beautiful Se Va to the album. “Rafael sang those tunes on his iPhone to my voicemail,” García recalls. “That’s how I learned them. ‘Se Va’ actually has lyrics, but I did an arrangement as an instrumental where it goes from a yubá rhythm, which has a 12/8 type of feel, and then changes into an accelerated seis corrido rhythm, which gets really intense.”
The time-shifting opener Audubon, written in 2014 when García was living on Audubon Avenue in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan, makes use of a device by the composer that creates a kind of rhythmic illusion. As he explains, “I was trying to superimpose the four feel on top of a big 3 feel. It flows perfectly with this pattern based in three, played by Victor mimicking batá chachalokafún rhythm on three conga drums.
Then there’s this section on the guitar solo where it goes into this Afro-Cuban bembé feel in 3, which actually comes from the 12/8 abakuá rhythm. Finally, it goes into the percussion tradings near the end of the tune. So it’s playing games with the time feel without actually shifting the beat.”
On Ideas Convergentes, García skillfully creates a confluence of odd meters cuembé in 5/4 with an overlying 7/4 with the snare, then a fast seis corrido in 7/4 for the solos and back to cuembé in 5/4 for the barril solo. “It’s like a delta, where the different streams of a river meet before going out to the ocean,” he explains.
Fernando Garcia. Photo by Claudia Tebar.
“It gives a sense to the listener of being in a boat ride and you’re constantly shifting on the tides and the waves. There’s definitely a beat going on but you’re not sure when it all meets. And I think it’s cool that I didn’t solo on that tune because I’m just holding it down in five on the drum kit while Victor on the barril has the liberty on his solo to accelerate or decelerate and not feel that we’re going to lose the groove.”
The title track Guasábara Puerto Rico opens with a dramatic chant feel in the drums. Tenor saxophonist Kus enters, channeling his inner Trane on the meditative vibe before taking off in close conversation with Zenón on the melody. Rhythmically the tune shifts from a yubá in 5/4 to a sicá in 5/4 and finally a holandé in 5/4. Vicéns offers up a cleanly-articulated, fleet-fingered solo along the way that sounds like it’s coming out of the Pat Martino school, and he’s followed in kind by potent solos from pianist Chakarji and alto sax great Zenón. Garcia turns in a crackling solo on this turbulent 9-1/2 minute suite. “The term ‘guasábara’ is from our native Taíno language and it means conflict or even in some cases like a battle,’ he explains. “So that’s the drama of this tune.”
The tranquil 7/4 cuembé vehicle Healing Prayer, which finds Kus on soprano sax, is the calm after the storm of “Guasábara Puerto Rico.” And while García composed both tunes before the terrible events of September 20, 2017 when Maria struck Puerto Rico as a strong Category 4 hurricane, they stand now as a kind of soundtrack to the devastation and recovery of the composer’s homeland. “The first four songs of the album sound like a timeline of what happened in Puerto Rico and what’s happening in the weeks after,” he says. “It’s an amazing coincidence.”
The Element, one of García’s newer compositions, is a churning sicá in 3/4 that morphs into a yubá along the way. He says it was inspired by taking composition workshops with Argentinian pianist-composer Guillermo Klein, leader of the group Los Guachos. “Working with Guillermo opened up a new way of thinking, a new way of writing and exploring rhythmic illusions.”
The album closes on an exhilarating note with the Afro-Cuban flavored timba-jazz number Tiempo, which has Martínez switching to electric bass and features an incendiary drum solo by García against Pablo’s churning percussive groove at the tag.
Throughout Guasábara Puerto Rico, García has one foot firmly entrenched in the folkloric tradition of bomba while striding confidently into more modernist jazz territory with the other. Bill Milkowski
Produced by: Fernando García. Tracks 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 recorded on June 25, 2017 at East Side Sound, Manhattan. Tracks 3, 4, and 8 recorded on June 28, 2017 at The Samurai Hotel, Queens. Recording Engineer: Danilo Pichardo. Mixed by Bobby Connelly at Little Big Audio, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mastered by Tahir Durkalic at Digital Studio, Denia, Spain. Photography by Claudia Tebar. Package design by: Al Gold. Executive producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.
Publishers: All tracks published by Fernando García Music, BMI.